Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Council Makes Street Name Changes Easier

New rule requires four-fifths of council to approve. Cesar Chavez Dr. extension next?

By - Apr 1st, 2021 08:37 am
N. Vel R. Phillips Ave. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

N. Vel R. Phillips Ave. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The Milwaukee Common Council has renamed two high-profile streets in recent years with virtually no opposition. N. 4th St. became N. Vel R. Philips Ave. in 2018, honoring Vel Phillips, the civil rights pioneer who passed away earlier that year. Earlier this year, the council followed that change by eliminating a 1984 compromise: N. Old World Third St. became N. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr., uniting it with the similarly named street to the north.

But part of the reason the council has encountered little resistance is because it ignored its own rules in changing the names. City ordinance (113-3) requires a postcard survey of property owners, with more than 50% of respondents required to be in favor, and a recommendation from the Citizen Advisory Committee. The council, led by Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs, instead created an entirely new ordinance each time to rename the streets.

The council hasn’t always circumvented its own rules to name things.

“Back in the day when S. 16th St. was renamed to S. Cesar E. Chavez Dr. the process was extremely difficult and the street name change didn’t go past Mitchell Street,” said Alderman Jose G. Perez to members of the Public Works Committee on March 10th. “We know now that the neighborhood has had a huge demographic change and wants to see to rest of the street become Cesar Chavez to the edge of the district.”

The street was renamed, with plenty of controversy, in 1996. He said the requirement to pay for the mailing was an impediment to advancing a second attempt at renaming the southern leg.

“We wanted to make sure the process was a little more fair to neighborhoods and stakeholders that don’t have the funds available,” said Perez.

The 1996 effort was the third attempt to name a city landmark after Chavez, a national labor organizer known for championing the rights of migrant workers in the 1960s and 1970s. The 1996 petition sought to make the designation run south to W. Lincoln Ave., but the postcard survey resulted in it being terminated at W. Mitchell St. But since the renaming, that area of the South Side has changed demographically from being dominated by Polish residents to being a hub for the city’s growing Latino community. A statue of Chavez now stands outside El Rey market at 916 S. Cesar E. Chavez Dr.

Other proposals have failed as well.

A 2013 postcard survey to rename Pittsburgh Avenue to Freshwater Way, championed by Mayor Tom Barrett as part of the creation of Reed Street Yards, was overwhelmingly opposed. Only the newly constructed portion in the business park and one block of the existing street were given the new name.

Coggs said that the street naming process, created following the King Drive debate, was intentionally made difficult and expensive. “You’re absolutely correct,” said Ald. Robert Bauman.

The council’s remedy is to establish a requirement for four-fifths of its members, currently 12 out of 15 votes, to vote for a name change when the rest of the process wasn’t followed. The ordinance, sponsored by Coggs and Perez, notes that this would allow the council to represent the will of residents when property owners might not be Milwaukee residents.

The new rules apply to the naming of streets, buildings and other city facilities. The council also ignored its own rules recently to rename the Milwaukee Fire Department headquarters after former city employee Alonzo Robinson, the state’s first Black architect.

In each of the renamings, the council did follow the ordinance with regard to who is eligible to have a street or building named after them. Robinson, King and Phillips are each notable figures with a connection to the street or building that’s being renamed. The ordinance also requires them each to be at least 70 years old or decreased, and all three were honored posthumously.

In another notable renaming, the Milwaukee Board of School Directors ignored its own rules in 1999 when it named a school after then-neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson. During his 2015 run for president, Carson proffered a number of historical facts inconsistent with those taught in the textbooks at his namesake school.

As it did for each of the recent renamings, the council unanimously adopted the new rules for renaming streets, buildings and other city facilities at its meeting last week.

Categories: Politics, Weekly

One thought on “City Hall: Council Makes Street Name Changes Easier”

  1. blurondo says:

    In a previously published piece discussing street renaming, a commenter noted that Milwaukee’s street numbering system made it remarkably easy to navigate the city. He suggested that in order to maintain that positive trait, changing street names should be done only on streets identified with words, not numbers. It was a logical and valuable suggestion then and it still is.

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